I just finished a glass of Stargazer IPA from a company called Rooftop Brewing Company in Seattle. It was delicious. A strong hoppy aroma gave way to a balanced body with plenty of malt. Normally, that particular beer isn't available near me in Louisville, KY. Rooftop is too small to distribute so far away.
I got a chance to try it because I brewed it from a prepackaged set of ingredients called a PicoPak in an automatic beer brewing machine called the Picobrew Pico Model C. The $400 Model C is the most affordable and accessible automatic beer brewer I've tested.
If you just want to try some unique beer, PicoPaks won't save you money over buying a typical six-pack of craft beer. If you want the simplest route possible to making beer at home, using the Model C is mostly foolproof at this point, but it still requires cleaning and sanitizing. This isn't quite a Keurig for making beer. The Model C automates some of the process, but start to frosty beverage still takes weeks and requires your careful involvement at various steps.
After a few earlier attempts, this model is the closest Picobrew has come to my dream of a perfect automatic brewer. I still don't recommend it to most folks with a casual interest in beer, but if trying a replica of unique beers from across the world sounds particularly appealing to you, and you have a decent amount of homebrewing knowledge, then the Model C is worth considering.
Getting to know Picobrew
Once a tech startup with a single machine in their lineup, Picobrew has made a few automatic beer brewers at this point. More than the other Picobrew machines, the Model C successfully simplifies the brewing process, and at a new, semi-reasonable $400 price tag. By comparison, the similar Pico Pro is $600 and the more involved Zymatic is $2,000.
You can buy the Picobrew Pico Model C now from the company's site. It's available on Amazon as well and it will ship overseas. The $400 US price converts to roughly £300 and AU$530. The product includes all the parts you need to brew beer, but not the ingredients.
The ingredients come in the form of PicoPaks, which are also available on Picobrew's site. You can't add your own ingredients with the Model C -- you have to use the prepackaged, sealed sets. That said, Picobrew offers quite a variety of PicoPaks at this point. You can find beers of all different styles from breweries across the world, and you can even . PicoPaks cost between $25 to $30 and produce roughly 5 liters of beer.
Keep a couple of things in mind, even if the premise and pricing sound perfectly reasonable: 5 liters translates to roughly 14 bottles of beer. Even with a $25 PicoPak, you're talking about paying roughly $12 for a six-pack, which isn't crazy for good beer, but it will be awhile before you make up the cost of the machine.
Also, Picobrew just launched a crowdfunding campaign for the $300. The Pico U will be able to brew coffee, kombucha, chai and more. The Model C is $100 more, bigger, and only makes beer. You need to attach a separate container to the Pico U to brew beer, so the Model C might be easier to use, but if the Pico U works well when it comes out early next year, the Model C might become outdated.
A simpler brew
For now, the Model C is the easiest machine to use in the Picobrew lineup. It's similar to the original Pico, now called the Pico Pro. The main body of the Model C is plastic, as opposed to the stainless-steel frame of the Pro. The Model C also has a smaller display than the Pro -- inevitably to help Picobrew get the price down. In practice, I didn't notice much downgrade from either change, so Picobrew appears to have trimmed the costs wisely.
You'll still want to keep the instruction manual handy when you're brewing with the Model C. Once you're going, the Pico takes care of everything itself, but you need to give the machine a rinse and make sure everything is installed correctly before you hit start.
Once you've rinsed the machine, you insert a PicoPak into a big plastic tub and slide the tub into the main compartment of the microwave-size Model C. You then fill up both a reservoir in the upper part of the main compartment and a separate brewing keg with distilled water. You can use the display to connect your Pico to your Wi-Fi, and the machine will read a code on the top of the PicoPak so it automatically knows what it's brewing. Attach a couple of clearly labeled hoses from the main machine to the brewing keg and hit start.
The other big difference between the Model C and the Pico Pro is the separate keg you attach to the main machine when you're brewing. The Pro uses a cornelius keg, which is fairly standard equipment in a homebrewing setup, but cleaning the internal components of the valves can be a pain. With the Model C, you use a specialized keg with a top that simply snaps into place and comes free just as easily for quicker cleaning.
Once you hit start, the Model C turns your distilled water into unfermented (non-alcoholic) beer called wort over the course of a couple of hours of automated cooking time. PicoPaks include the normal ingredients for making beer, so the Model C steeps the distilled water with the malt from the PicoPak, then it boils this sugary water with packets of hops.
You can track your brew's progress on the company's site. When it's done, you'll have five liters of hot wort in your brewing keg. You'll need to remove the hoses, and set the beer aside for roughly a day while the liquid cools. Then, you stir in a packet of yeast also included in the PicoPak, and wait 5 to 7 days while your beer ferments.
At that point, your beer is technically beer -- it's alcoholic -- but it's still not ready to drink. You'll need to reattach the brewing keg to the main machine and use the hoses to transfer it to a separate serving keg so you can get it away from the now dead yeast. You add a packet of priming sugar at this point and wait another week or two while it carbonates. Then, you can chill your beer and drink it.
Given roughly $25 per PicoPak and a couple of weeks of waiting time and anticipation, it's quite disappointing when the beer doesn't turn out. Fortunately, even if you don't know what you're doing, that's less likely on the Model C than on previous models, but it's still not impossible even if you're being careful.